Historical approaches, like most other things, are subject to change and nuance. Of course history itself (past events, activities and individual expression) doesn’t change, but the manner in which we interpret it, our aim in researching it, or the manner in which we use it, inevitably does.
This article explores the relevance of Black historical research and will provide a critique of what I call “Feel Good” Black history.
In scholarly circles, we refer to the study of how history as been conducted, written and interpreted as “historiography.” If you follow the historiography of “Black or African-American Studies,” you will notice that it has changed over time.
Early pioneers of the field like J.A. Rogers, concerned themselves with “contributionist” or “vindicationist” Black history that focused on proving our worth and humanity through listing important Black figures, significant dates and African/Black contributions to world civilization.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, this emphasis on Black contributions was necessary because white society constantly spread the propaganda that Black people “Were nothing, had nothing, and contributed nothing.” The “First Black to do this,” or “Did you know” type of Black history was crucial and relevant in years past, because we had to challenge myths of Black inferiority and incompetence to whites, while resurrecting the crushed spirits and psyches of our own people.
While racism and anti-Black sentiment still exist, things are more nuanced today. With the abundance of research and archaeological evidence we now have, no one (barring members of right-wing white supremacist groups) can reasonably argue that Black people have not accomplished important things or contributed meaningfully to society.
After WWII and continuing to this day, Black history became more sophisticated and analytical.
As times and needs change, so does historiography. It is safe to conclude that the majority of Black children, youth and adults today know something about Black intelligence, accomplishment and pride. This is an important and lasting harvest of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.
Today we are familiar (even if only in an elementary sense) with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., even Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. We know or at least have heard that “Black is beautiful.” The election of Barrack Obama as the nation’s first. “Black” president the media dominance of Oprah Winfrey and the widely-recognized writing brilliance of Ta-Nahisi Coates are, (at least symbolically) convincing evidence of Black achievement and ability that no one can reasonably discount.
Therefore in the 21st century, it is not enough to simply quote or highlight famous Black (usually male) leaders, produce a list of Black “firsts”, or cite Black trivia. Doing so actually represents a digression or backwards step since we already have a tons of evidence and scholarship in this regard.
We live at a curious time where despite the presence of a Black president, Black million and billionaires, thousands of Black elected officials, successful Black entrepreneurs, scientists, attorneys, professors, writers, and entertainers, WE ARE STILL OPPRESSED, MARGINALIZED AND MISTREATED.
Our children don’t receive the education they need in chronically low-performing public schools; Police officers and white vigilantes still murder us with impunity; Privatized U.S. prisons keep millions of us in captivity and enrich themselves from our nearly free labor while doing so, most of us have no or very little assets, we die younger and more frequently than any other group in this country, and our rate of unemployment is astronomical (typically double that of whites).
The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we don’t need feel-good history – the type that is heavy on pride, vindication and proof of our greatness, but light on analysis and utility.
Much of what passes for Black history today (particularly on social media like Facebook) is oversimplified and obsolete. What we need right now and going forward are get-right, get-empowered, get problems-solved, get-free Black Studies!
Anything involving or affecting Black people should be under examination. And we must overcome our oversimplified definitions of history or relevant Black Studies.
This means we must change our concept of history from that of trivia, highlighting exceptional Black people, emphasizing Black contributions and attempting to prove our humanity or value to white people. These objectives are fine for Black elementary school children. From middle school on however, Black or Africans Studies should involve seriously studying the Black experience in various class dimensions, locations, religious and political contexts, and in every important sphere of our existence.
We must do this earnestly and in a critical manner with an aim of better understanding the problems we face, and resolving or correcting them.
No individual, organization, movement, or ideology is above critique. We need solutions, clarity, direction and answers in addition to studies that celebrate and affirm us. And simply put, feel-good Black history doesn’t provide all of these dimensions.
As we begin to shift our focus away from feel-good applications of history, we can focus on more functional uses:
- Comparing and contrasting different leaders, organizations and theories of liberation.
- Studying important but obscured people, organizations, and movements in our past. History is not simply the study or achievements of great men, exceptional folk, members of the Black middle class, urban areas or mass national organizations!
- Developing Black political-economic agendas and establishing financial and other institutions to achieve them.
- Debunking myths, ineffective methods, inaccurate analysis, and self-defeating thoughts/practices among ourselves.
- Clarifying misunderstood or misinterpreted ideologies, individuals or movements.
Too many of us are metaphorically riding donkeys when we should be exploring space. Too many of us are metaphorically using morse code in an era of laptops, tablets, smartphones and the internet. Let’s get our heads out of the sand and engage in studies of our experience that are useful and relevant to our condition, because being liberated and empowered is the one sure way to actually FEEL GOOD.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.